Patricia Casey: Coronation Street bravely shows us a route to helping young men who are on brink of suicide
‘Coronation Street’ tackled the sensitive issue of suicide this week.
It is said to have been the first time that a ‘soap’ dealt with the suicide of a young man Aidan Connor, played by Shayne Ward, who seemed an ordinary person.
He was not portrayed as having any mental or other personal issues troubling him. Just a regular type of young man.
The programme itself has been lauded for the manner in which it presented the topic and commentators have described as one of the saddest in soap history.
The writer and producer worked closely with various mental health organisations to ensure it did not in any way breach the guidelines on the reporting or portrayal of suicide.
So it did not discuss the method, show the remains or portray him as a hero. Instead the focus was on the impact it had on his family, first and foremost, but on the wider community also.
This is very significant since the grief of those left behind is often touched upon only in passing – if at all – in an attempt at dramatisation to create an effective storyline.
This runs the risk of encouraging copy-cat suicides. An example of this that I recall was the presentation of a young person’s suicide in the final scene of the ‘Dead Poets Society’, made in 1989.
In Ireland in 2016, 399 families experienced the same grief as the Connor family in ‘Coronation Street’ and this represents a reduction from a high of 554 in 2011, the largest in 16 years. But numbers tell little since they can vary as the population increases or decreases.
Instead rates per 100,000 are more helpful in monitoring trends. In 2016 it was 8.5/100,000 and in 2011, 12.1/100,000. Since 2011 the trend has been downward.
What is clear from closer scrutiny is that the female rate has been at, or less than, 5.5/100,000 for many years and the male rate much higher, between 13.8 and 22.4/100,000.
Rates are highest among men aged 25-34 and 45-54. These patterns are broadly similar to those found in Britain.
A question that is often asked is whether suicide is under-reported. It is likely it is since some deaths may be misclassified as car accidents or accidental overdoses. But this is true of most countries.
The coroners in Ireland can bring in a verdict of undetermined death if there is uncertainty as to the suicidal intention of the person and this has been declining and now stands at about 1/100,000. All of which makes our data as robust as any in Europe.
And it confirms the steady increase we have seen here, as in Britain, where suicide is the man killer of young men, is indeed a true finding and not simply a reporting anomaly.
Of course tacking suicide in a fictional account is risky since the profound grief of all the characters might result in revenge suicides – “just to show ’em”. What makes this different is that the protagonist in this episode was – on the surface – stable.
He was not violent, neither was he a drug abuser, he had no history of mental illness, of childhood trauma or of recent trauma – all of which increase the risk of suicide.
By focusing on the impact of death by suicide on others, the clear goal was to deter those who may be contemplating suicide, believing that they are a burden on their families.
It remains to be seen if this will be achieved but death by suicide in this age bracket, in the next few months, is likely to be studied by researchers to try to determine this.
In Ireland we now have highly trained mental health nurses in all of our Emergency Departments to evaluate every person presenting with suicidal thoughts and behaviours. They are then discussed with a Consultant Psychiatrist and a management plan put in place.
This programme has been in operation for about five years throughout the country. The operation of this depends on the person coming to the hospital for help in the first instance.
Unfortunately many young men with low mood, anxiety or other personal problems do not seek help but suffer in silence.
If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article please contact Samaritans on Freephone 116 123, text 0872609060 (standard text rates apply), or email email@example.com (ROI) or firstname.lastname@example.org (NI)